Reilly criticizes public law school plan

Former AG hired by foe of proposal

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / January 26, 2010

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Former attorney general Thomas F. Reilly plans to tell a Board of Higher Education hearing today that a controversial proposal to create a public law school is built on shaky financial grounds.

Plans by the University of Massachusetts to fund the law school without taxpayer dollars by relying heavily on mandatory student fees would violate the state constitution, Reilly said, because those fees would pay for the school’s core educational activities.

He submitted his legal opinion to Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland and board members yesterday on behalf of the New England School of Law, one of three private law schools opposed to a public law school.

“This whole financial plan borders on recklessness,’’ Reilly said in a phone interview. “They realize that tuition has to be turned over to the state, so they’re going to call it a fee.’’

Reilly has been retained by the New England School of Law and is being paid an unknown amount of money to review the proposal.

The state constitution requires that all tuition be remitted to the state, and the limited exception allowing colleges and universities to retain student fees cannot be abused to fund core educational services, Reilly said.

But that is exactly how the state’s public higher education system has been funded for decades, as observers say and even Reilly acknowledges.

All 29 public campuses, including the state universities, colleges, and community colleges, function this way, with fees, which outweigh tuition, going toward academic programs, said Robert Connolly, a UMass spokesman.

“It’s a long-standing approach that has been legally tested,’’ Connolly said. “Clearly this is a desperate last-minute attempt to try to prevent the creation of an affordable public law school in Massachusetts, and it’s being mounted by a private law school that fears competition.’’

Reilly said the practice has reached an extreme with the UMass law school proposal, which has mandatory fees making up 87 percent of students’ bills.

“It’s a trend that has been going on throughout the system,’’ Reilly said, “but this one jumps out at you.’’

Asked why he did not address the issue when he was attorney general if he considered it such a problem, Reilly said, simply, “It’s never been challenged.’’

In his letter, Reilly urges the board to immediately check on the legality of the proposal with Attorney General Martha Coakley before voting on the plan. “Not to do so could potentially expose the board to a taxpayer lawsuit,’’ he said.

A spokeswoman for Coakley declined to comment.

James Karam - a UMass trustee who heads that board’s finance committee, which has already vetted and approved the law school - said he is outraged that Reilly is jumping into the fray on a subject he never took on as attorney general or as a gubernatorial candidate.

“Now that he’s a hired gun, he comes up with an opinion for the right price,’’ Karam said. “I am just ashamed and disappointed that he would stoop to something like this.’’

The Board of Higher Education, which rejected a similar proposal in 2005, is scheduled to vote on the plan Feb. 2. If approved, UMass-Dartmouth would begin enrolling students in its law school in the fall.

Tracy Jan can be reached at